Sunday, August 03, 2003

Vigilantism in Iraq

From the Washington Post, we have the following disturbing story:

THULUYA, Iraq -- Two hours before the dawn call to prayer, in a village still shrouded in silence, Sabah Kerbul's executioners arrived. His father carried an AK-47 assault rifle, as did his brother. And with barely a word spoken, they led the man accused by the village of working as an informer for the Americans behind a house girded with fig trees, vineyards and orange groves.

His father raised his rifle and aimed it at his oldest son.

"Sabah didn't try to escape," said Abdullah Ali, a village resident. "He knew he was facing his fate."

The story of what followed is based on interviews with Kerbul's father, brother and five other villagers who said witnesses told them about the events. One shot tore through Kerbul's leg, another his torso, the villagers said. He fell to the ground still breathing, his blood soaking the parched land near the banks of the Tigris River, they said. His father could go no further, and according to some accounts, he collapsed. His other son then fired three times, the villagers said, at least once at his brother's head.

Kerbul, a tall, husky 28-year-old, died.

"It wasn't an easy thing to kill him," his brother Salah said.

In his simple home of cement and cinder blocks, the father, Salem, nervously thumbed black prayer beads this week as he recalled a warning from village residents earlier this month. He insisted his son was not an informer, but he said his protests meant little to a village seething with anger. He recalled their threat was clear: Either he kill his son, or villagers would resort to tribal justice and kill the rest of his family in retaliation for Kerbul's role in a U.S. military operation in the village in June, in which four people were killed.

"I have the heart of a father, and he's my son," Salem said. "Even the prophet Abraham didn't have to kill his son." He dragged on a cigarette. His eyes glimmered with the faint trace of tears. "There was no other choice," he whispered.

In the simmering guerrilla war fought along the Tigris, U.S. officials say they have received a deluge of tips from informants, the intelligence growing since U.S. forces killed former president Saddam Hussein's two sons last week. Acting on the intelligence, soldiers have uncovered surface-to-air missiles, 45,000 sticks of dynamite and caches of small arms and explosives. They have shut down safe houses that sheltered senior Baath Party operatives in the Sunni Muslim region north of Baghdad and ferreted out lieutenants and bodyguards of the fallen Iraqi president, who has eluded a relentless, four-month manhunt.

But a shadowy response has followed, a less-publicized but no less deadly theater of violence in the U.S. occupation. U.S. officials and residents say informers have been killed, shot and attacked with grenades. U.S. officials say they have no numbers on deaths, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the campaign is widespread in a region long a source of support for Hussein's government. ... Lists of informers have circulated in at least two northern cities, and remnants of the Saddam's Fedayeen militia have vowed in videotaped warnings broadcast on Arab satellite networks that they will fight informers "before we fight the Americans."


Residents of Thuluya said they had no doubt about Kerbul. After the operation in the village, dubbed Peninsula Strike, a force of 4,000 soldiers rounded up 400 residents and detained them at an air base seven miles north. An informer dressed in desert camouflage with a bag over his head had fingered at least 15 prisoners as they sat under a sweltering sun, their hands bound with plastic. Villagers said they soon recognized his yellow sandals and right thumb, which had been severed above the joint in an accident.

"We started yelling and shouting, 'That's Sabah! That's Sabah!' " said Mohammed Abu Dhua, who was held at the base for seven days and whose brother died of a heart attack during the operation. "We asked his father, 'Why is Sabah doing these things?' "

In the raid, three men and a 15-year-old boy were killed, all believed by villagers to have been innocent. Within days, many focused their ire on Kerbul, who had served a year in prison for impersonating a government official and was believed to have worked as an informer after he was released. Young children in the street recited a rhyme about him: "Masked man, your face is the face of the devil." Calls for revenge -- tempered by the fear of tribal bloodletting getting out of hand -- were heard in many conversations.

Kerbul's family said U.S. forces took him to Tikrit, then three weeks later, he went to stay with relatives across the Tigris in the village of Alim. As soon as word of his release spread, his brother Salah and uncle Suleiman went there to bring him back.

"We sent a message to his family," said Ali, a retired colonel whose brother was among those killed during the operation. "You have to kill your son. If you don't kill him, we will act against your family."

His father appealed, Ali recalled, saying he needed permission from U.S. forces.

"We told him we're not responsible for this," Ali said. "We told him you must kill your son."

Kerbul's body was buried hours after the shooting, his father said, carried to the cemetery in a white Toyota pickup. He said he and Kerbul's brother accompanied the corpse. Salah, his son who fired the fatal shots, said he stayed home.

Neither U.S. military officials in Thuluya nor Tikrit said they were aware of the killing.

"It's justice," said Abu Dhua, sitting at his home near a bend in the Tigris. "In my opinion, he deserves worse than death."